Friday, August 21, 2009


I leave in about 24 hours. I am actually doing laundry as I type (ahh, sweet, sweet machines . . . how I will miss you), which makes me feel slightly better about ignoring all of the other last-minute things I need to do in favor of writing in this thing.

At this point, I'm mostly just excited to have the opportunity to do Peace Corps again. Still, at the same time, re-entering brings up all of those little self-doubts in the back of my mind from the first time around.

I think that one reason (not a big reason, but a reason nonetheless) that Peace Corps appealed to me after college was that I was tired of the competitiveness of academics.

My last summer in college, I remember signing up to speak about the honors program at my university to prospective students. I and the other undergraduates who had signed up to do this were supposed to talk about our experiences in an auditorium full of high-schoolers and their parents; it was basically an opportunity to brag about our academic achievements in front of a bunch of strangers. I won't lie, I was just as excited as the other students (if not more) to stand up and wave my academic dick around for all to see. But afterwards, I remember thinking, "Wow, that was pretty stupid."

I thought that Peace Corps would be free of this kind of shallow, mindless competitiveness. But, as it turned out, it was still there -- just in a different form. The urge to proudly complain about the hardships of one's site, and how said hardships were harder than other volunteers', was too much to resist for most, myself included.

(Though I must note that, in all fairness, that we as a group did undergo a pretty drastic lifestyle change in moving to Kenya, and it's only natural that we would want to commiserate with fellow volunteers about the difficulties of adapting to these changes. Also, I was fortunate enough to be pretty healthy throughout my time in Kenya, so I don't want to belittle those who were not. Still, there was definitely an undertone of competition in many of these discussions).

In addition, a deeper kind of insecurity manifested itself -- perhaps not for other volunteers, but certainly for myself. Despite my efforts to prevent pointless comparisons, I couldn't help but hold my own work up to that of my fellow PCVs. How were they able to become so integrated into their communities and schools, when I still felt like the resident mascot in mine? What aspect of my personality made me fail to form close friendships with my co-workers and community members? Why wasn't I as organized and innovative as other PCVs, or as fearless in pursuing projects?

This time around, I am going with a bunch of people who have already spent at least two full years in Peace Corps. Because I was evacuated from Kenya only a year into my own service, I will therefore have half or less than half of the experience as compared to these other volunteers.

I know that it is kind of silly to worry about these kinds of things, and I am getting better at not entertaining these kinds of thoughts. Each volunteer's experience is so unique that any kind of useful comparison is really impossible. In addition, I think that I am helped out this time around by the fact that I now have a much better idea of what I want to do with my life. Because I know that I want to make international health work my career, I can look at this experience as another step to building my understanding of international health and development work. It is much more something that is moving me toward my goals this time around, and not just something to do.

One final thought: In the laboratory I worked in during this past year, there was definitely a competitive atmosphere, often in an unpleasant way. Perhaps it was because of the particular mix of personalities in the lab, or perhaps I felt it especially because this was a new brand of science for me, and one in which I had extremely limited previous experience, or perhaps there was something else at work. In any case, it was hard not to let the little things get one down -- somehow, it was too easy to feel that one's ability to pipette directly reflected one's worth as a human being. But, in the end, it was really just another form of the same senseless competition; a person's manual dexterity no more reflects her or his ability as a scientist than the number of times one has the shits reflects one's effectiveness as a development worker.

I think that is partly why I like having a range of experiences -- I may not be the best at any of the things that I do, but doing them helps me to see things in context and to try to get past the little ego traps.


  1. I doubt you'll get this message before you leave, but I just wanted to wish you a safe trip.

    Have fun saving the world!!

  2. Me too! I'm so happy for you that you got in! Now I get to read more fun Erin observations abroad :)